Siafu

siafu

The army ant genus Dorylus, also known as driver ants, safari ants, or siafu, is found primarily in central and east Africa, although the range also extends to tropical Asia. The term siafu is a loanword from Swahili. All Dorylus species are blind, though they, like most varieties of ants, communicate primarily through pheromones. As with their New World counterparts, there is a soldier class among the workers, which is larger, with a very large head and pincer-like mandibles. They are capable of stinging, but very rarely do so, relying instead on their powerful shearing jaws.

Such is the strength of the ant’s jaws, in East Africa they are used as natural, emergency sutures. Various East African indigenous tribal peoples (e.g. Maasai moran), when they suffer a gash in the bush, will use the soldiers to stitch the wound by getting the ants to bite on both sides of the gash, then breaking off the body. This seal can hold for days at a time, and if necessary, the procedure repeated – allowing sufficient time for natural healing to commence.

Seasonally, when food supplies become short, they leave the hill and form marching columns of up to 50 million ants which are considered a menace to people, though they can be easily avoided (a column can only travel about 20 meters an hour). It is for those unable to move, or when the columns pass through homes, that there is the greatest risk. There have been reported cases of people—usually the young, infirm, or otherwise debilitated who could not escape—being killed and eventually consumed by them, often dying of asphyxiation. Their presence is, conversely, beneficial to certain communities, such as the Maasai, as they perform a pest prevention service, consuming the majority of crop-pests, from insects to large rats.

The characteristic long columns of ants will fiercely defend against anything that encounters them. Columns are arranged with the smaller ants being flanked by the larger soldier ants. These automatically take up positions as sentries, and set a perimeter corridor in which the smaller ants can run safely. Their bite is severely painful, each soldier leaving two puncture wounds when removed. Removal is difficult, however, as their jaws are extremely strong, and one can pull a soldier ant in two without it releasing its hold. Large numbers of ants can kill small or immobilized animals and eat the flesh. A large part of their diet is earthworms.

In mating season alates (winged queens and drones) are formed. The drones are larger than the soldiers and the queens are much larger. They mate on the wing, and the queens go off to establish new colonies. As with most ants, workers and soldiers are sterile (non-reproducing) females. Male driver ants, sometimes known as ‘sausage flies’ due to their bloated, sausage-like abdomens, are the largest known ants, and were originally believed to be members of a different species. Males leave the colony soon after hatching, but are drawn to the scent trail left by a column of siafu once it reaches sexual maturity. When a colony of driver ants encounters a male, they tear its wings off and carry it back to the nest to be mated with a virgin queen. As with all ants, the males die shortly afterward.

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